i finished high school with a solid “C+” average and graduated college cumlaude. This could easily be the beginning to a novel about an experimental brain enhancement project, but in reality the difference between my “C” performance and “A” capabilities was physical fitness.

Plenty has been researched and written about the body/mind connection, but we have much to do in the way of implementing fitness in a meaningful way for high school students.

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The Undernourished Roots
In 2009 a CDC survey found that only 18% of high school students were getting the recommended 1 hour of physical activity per day. This corresponds to the high rate of obesity and increased rate of Type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease that is diagnosed in increasingly younger individuals. But what has this got to do with academic performance?

Two decades of research and anecdotal evidence support the idea that physical fitness can have direct impact on cognitive functioning.

However, there was a time not too long ago when parents would refer to their children as “more of an athlete” or “more into computers” or fill in whatever you like. Somewhere in the last decade it became more common to encourage a more balanced scholar-athlete. While the concept is an improvement from the old single-label model, there is a particularly troubling problem: team sports.

Team sports (baseball, soccer, basketball, football) are so synonymous with the term “athletics” that unless a student participates in one of these (or several individual sports include track and field or wrestling), he/she is not considered an athlete. It is important to know that statistics show the vast majority of high school students do not participate in team sports. They are either cut from the team or have no interest in playing. If fitness is so important for physical and cognitive optimization, what is the answer?

The team sport model of athletics needs to go. So much more exists in the realm of physical activity than competitive sports. One of the fastest growing segments in the fitness industry is general fitness programming for teens. Different from sport-specific training, the best of these programs do what PE class is missing: introduce a variety of activities that enhance strength, speed, coordination, endurance, and power. These non-competitive programs also offer some crucial benefits by providing participants with a sense of accomplishment and enjoyment of physical activity.

Increasing physical ability will have generalization or carry-over to other areas of development. Forcing a student through a 30 minute game of soccer once or twice a week is not a surefire shortcut to good grades.

In order for fitness activities to be effective they must:

  • Be performed regularly (4-6x per week on average)
  • Be approached with a motivated, engaged approached
  • Include activities that provide initial success and eventual challenge
  • Provide opportunities for creativity and discovery

It’s All Adaptive PE

I’ve spent a decade providing fitness programs for individuals with autism and related developmental disabilities as well as working with neurotypical or normally-developing adolescents and teens. Physical Education for special needs students is typically labeled “Adaptive PE.” In reality, all PE and fitness programs are adaptive. Any given gym class will have an extraordinary range of ability levels, and that does not just include physical skills. Adaptive, or behavioral skills (motivation, social abilities) and cognitive aptitude (what type of learner, with what speed of processing) are always a factor.

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In a typical gym class of 15-25 students, perhaps six really want to do a 4-week unit of basketball drills. Five more students may participate out of compliance, and the rest will borrow from their drama class and play the convincing role of “Looking as though they are playing when the coach makes eye contact.” Basketball, or any other competitive sport, is relatively closed-off to creativity. There are clearly defined and very rigid rules about how the game is played, how to win, and how to be successful or unsuccessful. For some teens, this situation works out well. For most, it just plain sucks!

I recommend that you do as I do and take a soft, 6 lb. medicine ball and put it one side of the room. I have a fifty foot nylon rope divided over itself to form two strands on the other side. Splitting the group in half, one “team” is going to find as many ways as possible to throw the ball in five minutes while the rope “team” is going to see how many variations of rope swings they can perform. After five minutes the groups switch to the other object (ball or rope). After another five minutes they switch again, only this time they have to jump to the other side of the gym on one foot. They are getting exponentially more physical activity than with a typical 30 minutes of soccer, and the activities are more general and less sport-specific. They also require more creativity and focus.

Creativity and focus are good, good things. They require an emotional “investment” in the activity. This is where the neurons of the brain pick up, in the figurative and literal senses. The more “open” activities invite participants to focus more and even expend more energy in pursuit of the goal, whether it be running across the room with a heavy sandbag overhead or figuring out a new way to jump over some low hurdles. Two of my friends and colleagues, Bill Meyer of Meyer Fitness in Norfolk, VA and Dr. Kwame Brown, creator of the FUNction Method are masters of these types of activities. Having fun while exercising also aids in fitness becoming a lifestyle rather than a keenly avoidable plague.

Outcomes the Goals
In the opening of this chapter I mentioned my improved academic performance over a decade. In the best case scenarios, appropriate fitness programs will: Increase general and specific physical health and abilities; increase cognitive functioning (particularly in frontal lobe abilities); decrease stress and anxiety; increase positive outlook and socialization; encourage exploration and play into adulthood.

To achieve these outcomes, educators, administrators, lawmakers, professionals, and parents must ensure that: Teens have access to PE and fitness programs that are movement and play-based rather than sport- specific; fitness is part of the classroom experience, have students stand up and move halfway through class; policies are passed to maintain and even extend recess, develop parks and outdoor play/fitness areas; group activities in noncompetitive settings do not marginalize the less talented students; healthy eating habits and choices are followed at home and available in schools.

Fitness is the gateway towards optimal physical, adaptive, and cognitive functioning. With the right programs and universal access, we can enhance the academic and lifelong success of students.

Eric Chessen, M.S. is the Founder of Autism Fitness, creator of the PAC (Physical, Adaptive, Cognitive) Profile Assessment toolbox, and co-Founder of StrongerthanU.com. He is based in New York, presenting and consulting worldwide.

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